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Posts tagged ‘Locus of control’


Students ‘Making Up’ Their Own Minds

“The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”

–Marvin L. Minsky (from The Society of Mind, 1986)

Human Brain Drawing itself

I want students to be busy building their own minds.

As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains. We must focus our work so that they have both the opportunity, and the skills, to do so. This is the professional mission in my life.

Ethereal? No.

Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s work or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree.

Don’t worry! I’m not going to get super technical about all that. I’ll leave that to those more expert than I.

Jean Piaget and ConstructivismPiaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied learning in children. He articulated various stages of development and developed a theory of constructivism. He spoke of schemas or mental structures. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into a previous pattern of ideas and knowledge—our schemas—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore adding a new schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

…we either assimilate or accommodate new information…or toss it out…

Consider, for example, a schema that a young child might hold for a fish. Fish live in water and have tails and fins with which to swim. She then sees many different kinds of fish—large, small, single coloured, multi-coloured and assimilates them all into her schemas for fish thus increasing the richness and texture of the fish schema. The first time that this child encounters a whale, she might call it a fish. Once her caregivers explain that it is a different animal called a whale and that it breathes air by coming to the surface of the water and that it is a mammal, the child will accommodate it by creating a new schema for whale. All of this is driven by the human need for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium or balance with no dissonance.

…the human need is for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium


Let’s consider new learning from a perspective of neuroscience—that of brain plasticity. Neurons sprout dendrites and send and receive thousands of signals with other parts of the brain thus creating neural pathways. Any new experiences and new learnings reorder neural pathways in the brain. In the same way that a piece of film must change in reaction to an image coming through the lens, our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences. Any neural pathways that are not frequently used simply disappear and new ones are continually being created as we develop new skills and knowledge.

…our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences…

Dr. Norman Doidge defines neuroplasticity as: the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function in response to thinking and acting in response to mental experience—in other words, in sensing and perceiving and what we do.

We are literally building our brains

Regardless of whether we think about this in Piagetian or in neuroscientific terms, when we are learning, we are literally building our brains.

We, as human beings of free will, have the option to build, and to mold, the structures of our brain.

I have spent a career questioning, exploring, discovering, and predicting how technologies can assist students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’. What ideas do you have?



‘Making’ Does Not Equal ‘Constructionism’

‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make their own minds.’

‘Making’ is about empowering students to ‘make up their own minds’—quite literally—regardless of the artifacts being constructed. This is the view I prefer to take.

‘Making’ should focus on taking charge of, and constructing, your mind—your learning. Making objects and artifacts is a means to that end. ‘Making’ is a central tenet of constructionism, tinkering and inquiry—or ‘tinkquiry’ as my colleague Brenda Sherry and I like to say. But it is not the whole story.

Don’t equate ‘making’ with ‘constructionism’.  ‘Making’ ≠ ‘constructionism’— necessarily.  One cannot assume that because kids are ‘making’ that they are building new schema—that you are embedding them in a constructionist pedagogy.

Seymour Papert and Idit Harel in 1991 said,

It is easy enough to formulate simple catchy versions of the idea of constructionism; for example, thinking of it as ‘learning-by-making’. One purpose of this introductory chapter is to orient the reader toward using the diversity in the volume to elaborate—to construct—a sense of constructionism much richer and more multifaceted, and very much deeper in its implications, than could be conveyed by any such formula.” In Constructionism (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991).

The ‘Maker Movement’ isn’t Just About Electronics and Coding!

carbon monoxide detectorKinetic SculptureThe maker movement has become extremely popular in the last few years and is usually associated with the ‘making’ of things with circuit boards, 3D printers, lego, found materials, wood shops, metal shops, coding/programming and other electronic gadgetry.  It’s similar to DIY (Do It Yourself) – and ‘craft nights’. There are countless Maker Faires and Maker studios all over the globe.

But, is it only about ‘making with electronics’ and ‘coding’? No. I don’t believe it should be.

‘Making’ isn’t only about electronics and coding.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind. I think Seymour Papert might agree with me as you will read later on.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’…

The Critical Part is the ‘Making of One’s Own Mind’.

Indeed, the critical part is the ‘making of one’s own mind’—the constructionist piece—not the nature of the artifact being made. As I suggested, making artifacts is the means to an end, in my opinion. Constructing one’s schema and texture of mind is the end-goal.

Now, of course, here I am telling you what I think about ‘making’ and ‘constructionism’ but I cannot think that you will merely learn it by reading. It will take my provocations and your efforts for you to construct your own understandings of these ideas—these constructs. As Papert and Harel said,

“If one eschews pipeline models of transmitting knowledge in talking among ourselves as well as in theorizing about classrooms, then one must expect that I will not be able to tell you my idea of constructionism. Doing so is bound to trivialize it. Instead, I must confine myself to engage you in experiences (including verbal ones) liable to encourage your own personal construction of something in some sense like it. Only in this way will there be something rich enough in your mind to be worth talking about.”

A long time coming!

DeweyPiagetWell, this kind of thinking and practice has been a long time coming—well, this time around! Let’s face it. Dewey spoke of it early last century when he spoke of experiential learning.

This time, since information technology has been affordable and accessible, it was Seymour Papert and his colleagues who founded this notion of ‘children as makers’ – when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.  Seymour studied with, and subsequently worked with, Jean Piaget who was instrumental in the origins of the constructivist learning theory—along with Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky and others.

What is constructivism?

BrunerVygotskyConstructivism is a theory which suggests that people actively construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world and are not merely passive recipients. These understandings arise through experiencing events and then reflecting on those experiences.  If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into our previous ideas and knowledge—our schema—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore modifying our schema.  Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

Regardless, we are active creators of our own knowledge. This occurs through asking questions, exploring, and assessing what we know.  It happens through inquiry.

Does this mean the teacher’s role is diminished?

Not at all. A constructivist approach celebrates the active role of the teacher in helping students to construct knowledge rather than to merely regurgitate meaningless facts. In constructivist classrooms, you will see project-based learning, problem-generation and problem-solving approaches, and inquiry-based activities where students are generating driving questions, generating potential solution strategies and digging into investigations.

You will see students making their knowledge and processes visible to the other students where it is all available for discussion and collaboration. Meaningless facts aren’t memorized in a decontextualized fashion but rather a meaningful body of knowledge is constructed and becomes part of the student’s interrelated collections of memories. The teacher’s role is far from irrelevant. It is critical as a facilitator, educator, and co-investigator.

Constructivism leverages the student’s natural curiosity about the world and how things work. Their engagement is invoked through respect of their current knowledge and real-world experience. Their hypotheses and investigative methods are honoured and honed.

PapertConstruct ‘a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe‘.

So along comes Seymour Papert – and in the mid-sixties – begins to think very deeply about the role of kids making things——>publicly.

This is, as I said, when he coined the term ‘constructionism’.

“Constructionists believe that deep, substantive learning and ‘enduring understandings’ occur when people are actively creating artifacts in the real world.” Papert & Harel “

Constructionism holds that children learn best when they are in the active role of the designer and constructor. But the theory goes a step further.

Constructionism “is the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”

Constructionism Relies on Visible Thinking & Conversation. Making May Not.

But it is not merely the act of constructing that is essential. Powerful things happen when that act of constructing mediates deep conversation with others. The very act of articulating ideas, sharing thoughts, confusions, ahas, questions, potential solutions makes knowledge building explicit. Sometimes words are spoken. Oftentimes facial expressions and body language communicate. We might draw diagrams or build prototypes. All these serve to make the thinking visible and, therefore, discussable—not only with others but for oneself. We learn our subject matter well as we think hard about it and are very intentional about constructing not only the artifact at hand but also our knowledge and success.

…constructing, or making, is not enough…

Constructionist learning is very powerful due to the rich texture of this public creation of artifacts.

Let’s look at some of Papert’s work in action.

Alright. So it is clear that today’s ‘maker movement’ has strong roots in Papert’s ‘constructionism’, in Piaget’s constructivism, in Vygotsky’s social constructivism, in Dewey’s experientialism, and in Scardamalia & Bereiters’ theories of intentional learning and knowledge construction.

However, today’s maker movement is nearly always described in terms of ‘electronic’ making—or making with coding or robotics or lately 3d printing.

Making Up One’s Own Mind

But, I maintain that the real focus should be on helping students to ‘construct their own mind’—for to do so helps them to ‘take charge of their own learning’—which is not just a matter of student agency. It is also a matter of intentionality and skill in knowledge construction. The wraparound of a knowledge-building culture is essential in a ‘making’ environment to reach this goal.

So What Do You Make?

As Papert said, and I totally agree, it matters not whether one is making a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe. I think what is important is that we understand the breadth and depth of constructionism and related theories and that we don’t merely equate making with constructionist learning.

So what do kids make? Have them make what moves them. Make something that matters. Make something hard. Have ‘hard fun’ as Seymour would say. But, above all, focus on crafting the surrounds—the culture—that encourages and supports kids in constructing new knowledge. Focus on the building of the mind as they are creating their public entities—be they poems, songs, multimedia presentations, other works of art or indeed more ‘maker faire’ robotics-based artifacts.

Make up your own mind on how to do this best.



Invent to LearnThere are now many books on the topic of ‘making’—but, these two are deeply rooted in a constructionist approach to ‘making’ because all of these authors have been central to building of this theory as colleagues of Seymour Papert.Guide to 3D printing

“Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing.”


Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 2.15.25 PM

Idit Harel at ISTE

K-12 Learning Platform

GlobaloriaIdit Harel is the founder and CEO of this online platform for courses in STEM, computing, game design and coding.

Relevant Posts


To Question IS the Answer!

Respecting the Student’s Desire to Know

questionsIn this climate of standards and assessment, can we afford to respect the student’s desire to know?

Or, can we afford not to?

I would suggest that respecting the student’s own ‘driving questions’ is a major strategy in the achievement of those standards.   Following this assumption, we need also to provide the tools for investigation and to create a school or classroom culture of support and expectation. In order for this model to work, students must learn the requisite metacognitive skills.

“If students are not able to assume control of their own learning, we do them them a serious injustice.”

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean  NC-ND

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC-ND

Where is the ‘locus of control’?

I have always been amazed at the arrogance with which we as a society assume control of a child’s learning as they enter school.  From birth and before entering school, children are immersed in a complex, unstructured learning environment.  And assuming supportive caregiving, these children learn a wealth of information.  They learn the major part of a language (or even more than one!), much about mathematics, science and the world around them.

“Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.”

How do they do this?  Inquiry.  Natural inquiry.  Curiosity.  Questioning.  Problem solving.  Resolving discrepancies.  Trial and error.  They are in charge of their own ‘curriculum’.  They set their goals…ask their questions… generate their strategies… invoke them… and consider the outcomes.  This is obviously an extremely powerful recipe for success.  Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.

Mark Brannan on Flickr NC SA

Mark Brannan on Flickr NC SA

What is learning? Cognitive and…?

Think of learning, if you will, as having two major distinct aspects.  One is cognitive.  The other is ‘other aspects of self’ – including social and affective. In this latter area I would include passion and motivation… the ‘heart’… the ‘fire’.    Often learning has been divided into ‘process’ and ‘product’.

However, I wish to propose that we consider both the ‘product and process’ as ‘content’ – in some ways the cognitive aspect.  Perhaps we as educators still spend too much time on the ‘product’ aspect of this false dichotomy, yet we do acknowledge and attend to the ‘process’ to some degree.  We do address to some extent ‘how to learn’ and we teach strategies for this to students.

We turn process into product!

The humorous part of this, of course, is by the very nature of doing so, we turn ‘process’ into ‘product’ as well.  It becomes something else to be tested and measured.  Please understand that I do not negate the importance of high standards for either product or process.  I have incredibly high expectations for students and would expect high quality results in both these areas.  It is how we get there which I question.  And the theft of the locus of control for learning in order to focus on curriculum delivery is not the way to get high standards in either the short term nor, in fact, for our larger goal of life long learning.

“The theft of the locus of control for learning…is not the way to get high standards.”

Bring Love - Gain Expertise!

Bring Love – Gain Expertise!

Don’t steal. It’s not nice! 🙂

It seems that what we need to do is more fully support the project-based learning model.  It is a ‘natural’ model that can be improved and enhanced through some formalization at school. But we shouldn’t rob those children of the most powerful and necessary attributes of learning – those of passion and being in charge of self… of all the meta aspects… of all the ‘fire’ and intrinsic reasons to learn.

So imagine a child as she moves from a world in which she has been the author/producer/director and actor of her own learning to that of mere actor… taking direction from others as to what to learn… to say… to perform.  And it is for the next 12 or more years that this is the case… except for glimpses when she is asked to ‘do a project’.

“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.” (Neil Postman)

Wide-eyed radical?

Lest you think I am some sort of wide-eyed radical who would like to see the curriculum tossed out the window, let me assure you, that is not the case and it would be simplistic to dismiss me as such.  It is not I who is the radical one.  It is, on the other hand, radical to take a healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner and to institutionalize that learner to the extent that robs them of their passion and motivation in the name of ‘curriculum delivery’.

“It is not I who is the radical one. Those who institutionalize healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner are radical.”

Take time to find your way

Explore the landscape.

Curriculum as a landscape to be discovered

Do I disagree with the curriculum content that exists in government documents?  That is a question for another discussion, but for purposes of this article let me answer ‘no’.  I believe it is necessary to have this breadth and depth of a knowledge base articulated and available in some organized fashion.  It provides a landscape to be discovered, explored and understood through the school life of a student.

Who manages the learning?

What worries me is the way in which it is approached.  Let me continue with my previous description of kids before school.  Before kids enter school they essentially command both aspects of learning – ‘cognitive’ and the ‘other’.  Upon entering school, the ‘cognitive’ is the focus.  The ‘other’ is essentially taken over by the teacher.  The management of learning is under the teacher’s jurisdiction.  It then becomes necessary to contrive activities to engender ‘motivation’ or ‘passion’.  And this gets to be the case progressively as the student proceeds through the grades.

Things people assume about me.

  • Don’t assume I negate the benefits of ‘direct instruction’.
  • I am not laissez faire.  I expect and demand high quality work.
  • Don’t think I let kids run amok.  I am a strict disciplinarian… in that I do not tolerate ‘slacking off’.  But I do like a certain amount of ‘chaos’ in my classrooms.  But that chaos relates more to ‘active learning’ than to ‘fooling around’.

So… how do we do it?

So how do we start towards this vision?  As I suggested, we need to perhaps further adopt a project-based learning (PBL) model.  And I believe that students’ driving questions are at the heart of many types of project-based learning.  This blog contains many posts related to PBL, questioning, the zone of proximal development and the role of information and communications technologies:

Just how powerful is the role of one’s own question in learning? It may be the single most important factor in learning… both in school and outside school.  Passion – the emotional force of a driving question – raises one’s motivation, increases energy and focus, carries one through uncertainty and difficulty, and heightens one’s own expectations.

“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner//


PBL? Am I Doing it Right?

…in collaboration with Brenda Sherry

This post was first published in Voices from the Learning Revolution of the Powerful Learning Practice.  It was also published on Mind/Shift as What’s the Best Way to Practice Project Based Learning?

Do you want to engage your students in Project Based Learning (PBL)? Maybe you are asking yourself what is PBL really?  Am I doing it right?

Well, first of all, the most important thing to understand is that PBL is a construct made up by human beings and so there are lots of variations!  And you are entitled to construct your own version, too, within some parameters. 🙂

My suggestion is to study many of the great resources that are available to you and then create your own working definition and effective PBL practice.  (I’ve included some of my favourite resources below.)

Some Parameters to Consider

I have created this diagram, enhanced by the critical eye of Brenda Sherry, which may be useful as you consider what is important to you and to your students.

We like to think with the frame of continua rather than dichotomies simply because things are rarely on or off, black or white, ones or zeroes! Flipping from one end to the other may not be the best solution for you! You may choose to slide more in one direction as suits your experience, the student’s experience, the purpose, type of project, and so on.

You could likely add other dimensions to consider as you build your own understandings and beliefs!


Who is in control? Who is initiating the project? Whose passion is being honoured with the project? Who is setting the goals, timelines, and motivation? Are you scaffolding the students’ success through templates, calendars, checklists, rubrics or are you unwittingly stealing their locus of control and micromanaging them. Been there. Done that! Thought I was helping them by giving them lots of assistance!


Who is asking the question to be investigated in the project? The student or the teacher? Is the question a ‘deep, driving question’? Is it a ‘fat’ question or a ‘skinny’ one?


If the projects are collaborative in nature, you may wish to consider the amount of interdependence that students have with one another.  Are they merely gluing their parts together to make a whole or do their conversations and co-creations lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?


Is the content a rich, deep problem space or is it a more narrowly focused content area?  Are there natural links to other domains that provide a context or is the content deconstructed to remove seemingly distracting and disparate information?


Are the students involved in constructing new meanings and understandings or are they simply retelling in their own words information they have found during their research? Have you built in mechanisms (blogs, wiki, vokis, public journal writing, etc.) so that student thinking is made visible, transparent and discussable or is most student process hidden and unavailable to others?


How authentic is the problem under investigation? Are students ‘being’ scientists, historians or geographers and so on, or are they ‘studying’ science, history and geography? How much is the project based in the real world of the student? Is it purposeful for them?

Great Resources for Project Based Learning

Brenda’s excellent Tech2Learn wiki has a Project-Based Learning page which we developed for some workshops. It includes resources from the best of the best:

Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss – Reinventing Project-based Learning


Buck Institute for Education

Linda Darling-Hammond – Powerful Learning

Passion-Based Learning Units

There are also links to our two blogs Learning Zone and The Construction Zone.

Chart: Effective PBL Continua by Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Computer Deployment – A Loss of the Locus of Control

Apple lle

Apple lle by brownpau

The Medium IS the Message

And the message we received is – you are no longer able, or entitled, to manage information technology in your classroom.

We were empowered.

You know, back in the day – when microcomputers first started entering schools (1978 thru the late 80s), we used to set them up ourselves. We’d order brand spanking new Apple lls or Macs. How excited we all were when the boxes would arrive. Two or three of us would set time aside somehow, or we would engage kids in the process, and we’d unpack the boxes carefully – setting the manuals smartly to one side, keeping the cables organized, managing the disks or cds. We’d decide where they were going to go and we’d somehow run power to them!

We were empowered, passionate, and able to exercise our professional wisdom.

Then we’d turn one of them on and regale at the success of it booting properly. The passion was tangible as we would install any new software and configure them the way we wanted – the way that would suit our needs.

Was it more work that we resented? Most definitely not.

We were empowered, passionate, and able to exercise our professional wisdom.

What happened?


CC BY SA opensourceway

During this early phase, standard information technology (IT) departments really had no cause to bother with us. Computers were standalone and really didn’t impact IT’s work or their networks which typically served the school offices for word processing and other ‘data’ functions.

However, then the WWW arrived. There have been many unintended second-order effects of that! Schools had to be networked. This fell under the purview of the IT department. With all due respect, IT departments share a different culture to the ‘learning’ culture of teachers, classrooms and schools. It is much less organic, messy and nimble. It is much more top-down, structured, planned and controlled.

At this point, the purchase and deployment of computers for the classrooms moved under their watch. Ownership of the computers shifted from the kids and teachers to the IT department. Controls were implemented to ensure ‘the integrity of the network’.

Any software that was not on the ‘image’ had to be requested through a very long process. Want to convert an image file or video file? Ooops. Can’t install it. No administrator privileges. Must ask. In fact, must often plead a case!

Please do not misunderstand. I respect and appreciate the need for security of data and the network. I truly do. But it has tipped.

The locus of control shifted from the user to a remote disconnected decision maker.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan had it right. The medium is the message. How so?

The message inherent in the medium of that IT deployment model was huge. It was a patronizing message of disempowerment, shift of ownership, lack of control over our own tools and media.

So although we still got the computers, we got the message loud and clear.

Thank goodness for personal smart devices that aren’t institutionally governed.